It was all even in Rome in the first leg of UEFA Europa League round of 32, as Arsenal were held to a 1-1 draw by SL Benfica at the Stadio Olimpico.
After a lackluster start to the game from both the teams, it was Arsenal who almost broke the deadlock in the 18th minute when Hector Bellerin latched on to a beautiful through pass from Dani Ceballos and laid it on the plate for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, only for him to uncharacteristically hit it wide from close range. Arsenal dominated possession and chance-creation in the first half.
The Gunners began the second half with the same gusto, however, it was the ‘hosts’ Benfica that took the lead against the run of play as they were awarded a penalty in the 55th minute for a handball by Emile Smith Rowe. Pizzi stepped up to score his seventh goal of this competition.
However, it took Arsenal only a couple minutes to level the score, with the help of some wonderful play by Martin Odegaard. The Norwegian slipped in a lovely ball through pass for Cedric who slid it back in the middle for Bukayo Saka to score the equalizer.
Mikel Arteta will be pleased to take an away goal advantage to the second leg tie in Greece. Let us take a look at how Arteta’s men fared on the night.
Bernd Leno: 6/10
As Aguias did not conjure up any chances to trouble Leno in the first half. The German shot-stopper looked comfortable against Benfica’s attack all evening.
Hector Bellerin: 7.5 /10
Made some really intelligent forward runs and created the best chance of the first half with a wonderful squared pass to Aubameyang only for it to be missed by the Gabon international. He looked assured in defence and constantly troubled Benfica’s backline with his surging runs in their half. Combined well with Saka and will consider himself unlucky to not have an assist or two to his name tonight.
David Luiz: 7/10
The veteran marshaled his defence well and snuffed out any threat to his goal expertly. He moved the ball quickly in defence and played some wonderful over the top passes to Arsenal’s attackers. Arsenal rely on his vast experience in such big games.
Gabriel Magalhaes: 7/10
Gabriel for Arsenal vs. Benfica:
◉ Most touches (115)
◉ Most passes completed (88)
◉ Most ball recoveries (10)
◉ Most fouls won (3)
◉ Most clearances (2)
A solid display. pic.twitter.com/f8in1zZu0C
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 18, 2021
Had a really solid first half where he did not allow Darwin Nunez to dominate him, as he won both aerial and ground duels against the striker. Played a wonderful through ball to Aubameyang in the second half, which wasn’t capitalized on by the captain.
Cedric Soares: 7/10
Once again, it was a solid display for the Portuguese international as an inverted left-back as he got forward well and provided a quality assist with his left foot to Bukayo Saka for the equalizer. Subbed off in the 62nd minute for Tierney.
Dani Ceballos: 7.5/10
Took him some time to get into the game, however, he created the best chance of the first half with a beautiful pass to Bellerin to split open Benfica’s defence in the 18th minute. He continued with the same flow in the second half when his back flick in the 51st minute set up Saka with a wonderful opportunity, which the latter failed to convert.
Granit Xhaka: 5.5/10
After his fine run of form in recent weeks, this was not a good performance from the experienced Swiss campaigner. His passing was astray on the night as he played a dangerous pass to Grimaldo in his own half which could have led to Benfica’s opening goal in 45th minute. His performance improved in the second half.
Bukayo Saka: 7/10
10+ – Since the start of last season, Bukayo Saka (19y 166d) is the youngest Premier League player to have reached double figures for goals (10) and assists (16) across all competitions. Hope. pic.twitter.com/cQMN2bOKvx
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 18, 2021
Looked bright and lively in the first half, as he combined well with Bellerin to create a few chances from the right-hand side. Was at the right place at the right time to score the equalizer in the 57th minute. His Influence in the game waned in the latter parts of the second half.
Martin Odegaard: 8/10
Arsenal’s best player on the pitch tonight, Odegaard showcased glimpses of his natural talent with a couple of brilliant passes as he created the equalizer with a splendid defence-splitting pass to Cedric who in turn assisted Saka. Looks to be settling in really well in that Gunners midfield.
— Chris Wheatley (@ChrisWheatley_) February 18, 2021
Emile Smith Rowe: 6/10
His drive with the ball and his movement off the ball caused Verissimo a lot of problems initially, but he struggled to keep the momentum going for him in the second half, and it was his extended arm that led to the penalty for the opening goal. Subbed off in the 76th minute for Martinelli.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: 5/10
Missed a golden opportunity to open the scoring for the Gunners in the first half in the 18th minute and missed another chance to take the lead against the run of play in the 63rd minute. Not the finest outing for Arsenal’s talisman, as he would be gutted to not have scored today especially after his hattrick in the last game. Subbed off for Pepe in 76th minute.
Kieran Tierney: 6.5/10
Injected pace and added impetus to the Arsenal attack, but his crossing was not at his usual best. He showed what the Gunners have been missing on the left side of the field.
Nicolas Pepe: 5/10
Immediately combined well with Tierney after being subbed on, however, his touch was poor and he struggled with his passing, did not have any significant impact on the game.
Gabriel Martinelli: 5.5/10
Played in the central role for the last 15 minutes of the game, but he failed to get any service from his midfielders.
Mohamed Elneny: N/A
Subbed in for Ceballos in the 89th minute.
Subbed in for Odegaard in the 89th minute.